The Older Horse.....Knowing When to Let Go


As your beloved horse reaches his late teens and early twenties there is a nagging question in the back of your mind that you try to ignore, but can’t - “ Should I retire my horse from riding?”. There are signs your horse will give when it’s time to retire him- reduced vitality or chronic lameness that worsens with work. Lack of enthusiasm for work and activities that formerly interested him. Swaying as you mount, indicating weakness and/or loss of balance. Stumbling on smooth footing, or other signs of reduced coordination. I strongly believe, from experience, that making the decision to retire your horse is almost as hard as the decision we all face at the end of the horse’s life. So we tend to avoid the decision and we just keep telling ourselves our horse is still fit and ridable, but the truth of the matter is that if we are telling ourselves that it may already be past time to retire that horse. Facing the realization that the horse we have logged so many miles on the trail or in show ring with over the years may no longer be able to do that with us is not easy. Our faithful old friend, that we have logged all those miles on for all those years, has become like Linus’s security blanket for us. We don’t want to give up the security we have found in that relationship. We trust that horse with our life and we aren’t prepared to give that up, but for our old friend’s sake we have to. I know from experience how difficult it is to let that old trusted friend go into retirement It was a nice fall day back in 1995 when I saddled up my gelding Omar to go for a nice fall trail ride. We started down the gravel driveway in front of the barn and Omar stumbled. He went down on his knees, but because he had so much heart he scrambled back to his feet. My heart sank at that moment. I dismounted Omar and I knew that was the last ride for us. I gave him a tearful pat on the neck and said to him “ I know, I know Omar it’s alright we won’t do this anymore, you’re a good horse”. Omar had never stumbled before in his life, even on rough trails, so I knew it was time and there would be no more rides. The truth of the matter was I knew before that day, but I just didn’t want to face it. One of the reasons I couldn’t face that reality was Omar was my first horse. I had been riding him since I was 12 years old and he was my security blanket. He was the horse that I could do anything with -from riding with just a halter on the trail, to riding down a Parade route, to ponying young horses off to being able to unload him from the trailer on a road trip to stretch his legs at a Holiday Inn parking lot - he did it, did it all, and I trusted him. Even though at the time I had a young Arabian mare I was training to step in for Omar, that I thought the world of, she still wasn’t Omar. We all need to keep a couple of things in mind as we face that decision. First you need to consider your horse’s health and well being. You don’t want to cause your horse pain, discomfort or injury. If you’re not sure consult a Veterinarian and have them examine your horse. A Vet can give you an idea of your horse’s overall health and should discuss whether retirement is the best for your horse or not. Your retiree will need to be with horses that don’t harass him, have plenty of room to exercise himself without over doing it, a shelter and, of course, a good nutritional feed for his age. Retirement doesn’t exclude some quality time with your old friend - grooming, in hand exercise or even an occasional ten minute ride at a walk around the stable yard, just don’t over do. You need to remember that building a releationship and bonding with that younger horse will take time, so be patient and don’t expect it to be the same as it was with your retiree. It can be difficult bonding with a younger horse, but it will come and, while it may not be the same type of relationship as with your retired horse, it can still be a good. Try not to make comparisons to your retiree. You just have to realize that, like humans, horses are all different with different personalities, weaknesses and strengths. Sometimes finding something new and different to do with your new horse will help you bond. Take your time and don’t forget it’s alright to miss riding your retiree, just make sure you don’t get caught up in that to the point that you stop riding entirely or make a bad choice. I found myself in that place and I almost made a really bad decision and sold a great Arabian mare who I trained myself. That mare is 22 years old now and has found a place in my heart along with Omar. “ No ride is ever the last one. No horse is ever the last one you will have. Somehow there will always be other horses, other places to ride them.” - Monica Dickens.